Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
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Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

La Grande Vallée VII

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
La Grande Vallée VII
diptych—oil on canvas
overall: 102 1/2 x 102 1/2 in. (260 x 260 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, 1985
Private collection, France, 1985
Anon. sale; Francis Briest Drouot-Montaigne, Paris, 9 October 1989, lot 54
Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., New York
Private collection, 1989
Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Sweden, 1996
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York, 2005
Private collection, United States
Private collection, New York, 2008
Acquired from the above by the present owner
M. Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, pp. 178-179 and 343 (illustrated in color).
M. Gibson, "Joan Mitchell: Au-delà des mots (Beyond Words)," Cimaise, no. 221, November-December 1992, p. 18 (illustrated).
K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, pp. 126 and 178, no. 76 (illustrated in color).
The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002, pp. 68 and 72-73, no. 35 (illustrated in color).
Joan Mitchell: At the Harbor and in the Grande Vallée, exh. cat., New York, Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, 2015, pp. 8 and 14 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Galerie Jean Fournier, Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée, May-July 1984, pp. 26-27 (illustrated in color and on the exhibition announcement).
New York, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., Paintings by Joan Mitchell, Lithographs by Willem de Kooning, Sculpture by Raoul Hague, June-August 1995.
Hong Kong, Lévy Gorvy, Return to Nature (Zao Xue Han Zhang), March-May 2019.
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Lot Essay

La Grand Vallée VII belongs to a triumphal series of twenty one large-scale paintings that Joan Mitchell painted between 1983-84—a powerful and emotional body of work that is widely regarded to be a highpoint of her long and distinguished career. Across two towering canvases the artist assembles a torrent of rapid, colorful brushstrokes that coalesce into a mystical landscape, a place that is of particular resonance to both the artist and those close to her. Yet, this is much more than an abstract representation of an actual place, it is a manifestation of the presence of that place, encompassing not only the physical beauty of the landscape itself, but also the feelings of emotion, happiness and loss that are associated with it too. One of only five diptychs in the series, La Grand Vallée is distinguished by dense thickets of explosive color that weave their way across the picture plane, evoking growth or the transition of seasons. Rendered with the artist’s signature impassioned gesture and luminosity, the painting is a masterwork from one of the most influential visionaries of the Abstract Expressionist movement at the height of her powers.

Across the two conjoined canvases of this monumental diptych Mitchell weaves together a series of varied painterly gestures; short staccato brushstrokes of rich vibrant color that are interlaced with more substantial swaths and passages of rich dark pigment to produce a surface that reverberates with energy and vitality. Deep pools of paint happily coexist alongside more delicate wisps of primary and secondary color and elevated peaks of impasto are interspersed between thin trails of liquid paint that trickle down the surface of the painting like streams running through the compositional landscape. Mitchell executes these elements in a series of painterly layers, beginning with the pale ground, before building up substantial layers of deep blue, verdant green, before finally topping off the composition with explosive bursts of golden yellows, warm oranges, and fiery reds. All this provides for an intoxicating sense of energy for, when the eye moves over the composition, Mitchell’s gestures pull us deep into the composition, like walking into the lush vegetation of the Grand Vallée itself. As curator Judith Livingston acknowledges, “The sheer physical quality of the execution and the bold expressive gestures in La Grande Vallée VII enliven its entire service, revealing a heightened luminosity from within the lush landscape; the juxtaposition and superimposition of the brush strokes and colors cause certain areas to appear to emerge from the canvas” (J. Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, New York, 2002, p. 72).

La Grand Vallée VII was painted at an important time in the artist’s life, both personally and professionally. The painting is a manifestation of the memories and emotions evoked by a real place; but the recollections are not Mitchell’s, they are those of her close friend and sometime assistant, the musician and composser Gisèle Barreau. Gisèle had first come to Mitchell’s attention a few years prior, when Joan advertised for a live-in companion and assistant, and a few weeks later the younger American arrived at La Tour on the artist’s Vétheuil estate, and over the next few years became Mitchell’s friend, companion and Girl Friday. The Grand Vallée paintings are in many ways a demonstration of this close friendship as they reflect traumatic events that had recently affected both women. The impetus for the series was a story which Barreau had told the artist about the death, the year before, of her cousin. "I changed for that Grande Vallée subject," Mitchell explained in an interview several years later, "which was really not a subject—the Grande Vallée was a (wild, vast) place where this Giséle Barreaux [sic] played with her cousin when they were children, and the cousin, aged 28, died of cancer. And she told me he said to her [when he was dying in 1982], 'If we could only return to the Grande Vallée once again,' as he was dying. I mean, that was what that was all about...You know, it was the summer my sister died -- the same week ...I was stuck on a subject, and I thought, 'This is very true and very simple,' and I thought, 'Shit, I'll paint the Grande Vallée for her.'" (J. Mitchell, quoted in L. Nochlin, Oral history interview with Joan Mitchell, April 16 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, on

The result was a series of canvases which capture both a sense of place and the emotions associated with it, through the artist’s chromatic brushwork. Mitchell claimed that “…what excites me when I’m painting is what one color does to another and what they do to each other in terms of space and interaction” (Livingston, op. cit.). “Each La Grande Vallée painting is like a living organism,” writes Judith Bernstock, “a microcosm of the universe—a world of colors suggestive of sadness and loss. The prevailing blues , greens, yellows, and organs, colors that she had long favored, have a basis in the realty of the valley (as described by her friend), with its calm water, verdant landscape, and radiant sunshine. Mitchell created an imaginary Grande Vallée, in which the life and death of humanity and nature are felt through the sensations of color” (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1988, p. 192).

In this aspect, Grand Vallée has paralells with the late works of another artist with whom Mitchell was well acquainted, that of Claude Monet. Critics had long made links between the two artists’ work—not least because Mitchell’s Vétheuil estate stood on land which used to form part of Monet’s Giverny property—but she consistenly disavowed a connection between their work (she rather disparagingly referred to him as “Monette,” and regarded him as a second-rate colorist). Yet others saw definite paralells between the two, particularly in the lushness of their canvases in which earth, vegetation, sky, and water are all inextricably linked, with each element becoming almost indistinguishable from one another. However, despite her protestations, many critics believed that Mitchell harbored a sense of admiration for the French artist and learnt a lot from him. In 1972, an interviewer Cindy Mesmer wrote, “Joan openly admits to her adoration of Monet and urged me repeatedly to visit the Marmottan Museum in Paris where many of his best paintings are to be found” (C. Mesmer, quoted by P. Albers, op. cit., p. 376). Ken Tyler—the legendary print maker who Mitchell met around this time—believed that she had the most complex sense of any artist he had worked with, as well as a profound and acutely visual knowledge of art history.

The Grand Vallée series was Mitchell’s triumphant return to paint after a prolonged break from producing large-scale canvases. “It’s so nice to paint,” she said, “after that awful long period of not working” (J. Mitchell, quoted by P. Albers, Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 372). This burst of activity resulted in twenty-one paintings—fifteen single canvases, five diptychs (including the present example) and one triptych, which were first exhibited at the Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris in May 1984. Five of the works from this series are now in public collections including Grand Vallée XIV (For a Little While) (Centre National d’art et culture et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris); La Grand Vallée V (Fonds national d’Art Contemporain, Paris) ; La Grand Vallée XVII (Fonds national d’Art Contemporain Provence-Côte d’Azur) ; La Grande Vallée IX (Frac Haute-Normandie) ; La Grand Vallée VI (Fondation Cartier, Paris).

The 1980s saw a remarkable resurgence in Mitchell’s career as her work came to the attention of a new generation of collectors and curators. Exhibitions at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, a retrospective at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University and the publication of the first major monograph of her work prompted a major reassessment of her career and instead of being regarded as relics of the 1950s, her work was being looked at as being an important part of the contemporary artistic dialogue. In addition, a number of events in her private life prompted her work to gain a new vitality. The deaths of a number of her close friends and relatives, forced Mitchell to reassess her life and work. She reflected on the transience of life, and the resulting rich and florid brushstrokes that race across the surface of Grand Vallée VII are rapt signifiers of this renewed sense of potency and wonder. The powerful gestures of blue, yellow and green lend the painting a vivid expression of the dynamic and ever-changing image of the valley and its river but do not lend themselves to realism. Like Monet's late paintings, the landscape is only referred to through spatial relations between the paint and the canvas that is juxtaposed to create an organic perspective and sense of space. It is the colors and the emotive content evoked that ultimately takes over the painting with yellow used for both sun and flowers, blue for water and sky. She has stated that her work is "about a feeling that comes to me from the outside from landscape. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me-- and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I would rather leave nature to itself. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell quoted in J. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relationship of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75).

Even at the beginning of her career Mitchell stood out amongst her fellow Abstract Expressionists as an artist who would come to define the medium of painting. At the time, one of her contemporaries Paul Brach noted, "... this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell's huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American abstract expressionism in their explosive impact. Movement is controlled about the periphery by large, slow-swinging planes of somber grays and greens. The tempo accelerates as the forms multiply. They gain in complexity and rush inward, setting up a wide arc-shaped chain reaction of spasmodic energies" (P. Brach, 'Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Joan Mitchell', in Art Digest, January 1952, no. 26, pp. 17-18).

Transforming these foundations in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, Joan Mitchell's paintings of the 1980s are a mature and self-assured expression of nature and the artist, poignantly reduced to the energies of light and color. Her late work is perhaps her most self-possessed and powerful, a culmination of her personal and professional journey. As Judith Bernstock states, "Some artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, Gustave Courbet, and Georges Braque peak early and are remembered mainly for their youthful accomplishments. Others, like Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Monet continue to grow and achieve lasting fame on the basis of a long lifetime of work, often fraught with hardship and struggle. Joan Mitchell fits into the latter category of artists. Although she had achieved recognition by the age of thirty, with each passing year Mitchell's painting has continue to become more profound and beautiful. Having mastered the techniques of painting and the rigors of life, she is now at the height of her expressive powers" (J. Bernstock, op. cit. p. 199).

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